Spring Season at the Loeb

The HRDC Spring season is well underway

Elan A. Greenwald

A typical run-through of Top Girls, one of several productions currently rehearsing for the Loeb Experimental Theatre, is initiated with an unusual ritual. The largely female cast and crew face each other in a circle and begin doing stretches. They start off with a relatively simple assortment of nerve-defraying arm extensions and breathing exercises, but soon begin emitting a guttural tribal chant. In moments, the scene of calm has erupted into a fervent sequence of chest-beating, head-twirling and tongue-extending, all done in approximate unison by ten normally rational individuals. Director Aoife E. Spillane-Hinks ’06 orchestrates the catharsis, encouraging her cast to relax and “let out their bellies.” The ceremony finally ends with a “shakedown,” where limbs are spastically shaken one by one as everyone counts down to zero.

What exactly does this do for the Top Girls? Before these exercises, the cast was a screwball swarm of hysterical giggles and rowdy line readings. But now they are firmly seated around a dinner table, their focus immersed in the performances and the improvement of their as yet imperfect accents. For the members involved in this production, there is a time for inanity and a time for gravity, and amidst the flurry of vaguely cultish behaviors, they find that clear transition.

THE EX IN FULL SWING

For the players of Top Girls and other shows under the auspices of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC), the Spring 2004 season is well underway at the Loeb Experimental Theatre. Since late February, the Ex stage has been graced by improv troupe the Immediate Gratification Players (IGP) and their Comedy Unthunk show, as well as brief runs of Betrayal, directed by Benjamin J. Toff ’05, who is also a Crimson executive, and Private Eyes, directed by Alli C. Smith ’06

Currently playing in an extended run through Sunday is Roberto Zucco, the brainchild of director Ben D. Margo ’03 -’04. Based on a British translation of French playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes’ final work, Zucco tells the story of its titular serial killer who murders, burgles and rapes apparently without motive. John C. Dewis stars as the enigmatic Zucco, alongside Sara L. Bartel ’06 in the female lead role of Girl.

Margo says he was initially attracted to the play for its “little boy against the world story.” He adds that he also admired, “the clarity of the script. It’s pretty direct; not much dicking around with subtext.”

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But for supposedly lucid writing, the show itself has drawn a multitude of interpretations from its cast and crew. Co-producer Alex H. Bush ’05-’06 emphasizes Roberto Zucco’s melodramatic aspects, noting that “it needs to be theater. There’s a lot of cruelty in the way the characters talk to each other that’s very theatrical and very unrealistic.”

The play’s dramaturg, Scott R. Wilson ’04, sees parallels to the current social climate. “Of course Zucco was a killer, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say he was a terrorist in a way,” says Wilson. “Throughout the play, there are these enigmatic pronouncements that Zucco makes about being a secret agent. We’re left in the dark as to whether or not that’s the case. But the government has taken on a sort of role with the Patriot Act, where there’s a lot of room to believe today that someone you know could be working for the government.”

Perhaps the most interesting interpretation belongs to Alan D. Zackheim ’06, who plays the dual roles of Old Gentleman and Girl’s Brother. “The show itself is in a lot of ways a reflection of Ben Margo’s personality,” says Zackheim. “A lot of his sense of humor, things that he doesn’t necessarily expect the audience to get but just finds really awesome, he’s more than happy to throw into the show.”

Much of the show relies on the murky visual ambience created by the production’s lighting and set designers, a difficult task given the limited rehearsal time afforded on the actual Ex stage. After rehearsing in various spaces for a month, the players are only given three days to pull all of the diverse elements of the production together.

“Early on in the process, rehearsal on any given evening can be up in the quad or down by the river or in some of the rehearsal rooms at HRDC, so you’re always transposing this idea of a set around with you,” says Zackheim. “It’s always one of the big frustrations that all college theater has.”

However, the participants assert that the transition has been natural, if a little hectic, and their faith in Ben Margo’s direction is evident. “He’s really interested in creating the piece that he wants to create,” says Zackheim of Margo’s vision. “It’s not his goal to try to please anybody.”

As Roberto Zucco wraps up, the creators of Top Girls will be putting the final touches onto their show, which runs from April 8-17. The play’s conceit involves a successful early ’80s businesswoman who invites a number of literary and historical figures to dinner to celebrate a recent promotion. The ensemble includes a Japanese courtesan, a character from Canterbury Tales, a female pope, a woman from a Bruegel painting and a Victorian world traveler. Largely set around a single dining table, the six women discuss their past exploits, often finding themselves faced with the problem of defining their “womanhood” independent of its conflicts with “manhood.”

Spillane-Hinks was introduced to the material years ago, when she literally stumbled upon the play. “The way that I discovered Top Girls was that I stepped on it one day at my house. So I picked it up, and I remember reading this at fourteen and thinking, ‘This is amazing.’”

She began preparing for the show as far back as summer break, gradually building a staff of familiar faces from past shows. “Basically it’s a whole process of courtship,” she says. “So you convince everyone how incredible the show is, how incredible the ideas are, how together you are as a director.”

A first-time director for HRDC, Spillane-Hinks knew landing the show at the Ex might prove a bit of a challenge. She admits that if the Ex hadn’t accepted Top Girls, she couldn’t have performed it at another venue due to the considerable resources specific to the stage. However, the process of application, admittance and now direction has been an incredibly “In acting, you work on your technique and your analysis, but the fact is the director has the ultimate say,” she says. “So to have that kind of intellectual agency in the process, as the director, it’s really wonderful.”